The Virtual Reality Healthcare Revolution

How the technology is improving patient care


Last year saw virtual and augmented reality hit the mainstream, with the sight of grown adults standing on street corners staring gormlessly at their phone as they ‘captured pokemon’ becoming commonplace. Yet while VR and AR are usually associated with gaming, its applications extend into areas far more beneficial for society, one of which is healthcare. According to a new report by Grand View Research, the global augmented reality & virtual reality in the healthcare market is expected to reach $5.1 billion by 2025, driven by growing adoption in the medical field, increasing investments in such emerging technologies, and constant developments in healthcare IT.

We’ve looked at three areas where it is set to provide a boost.


The last decade has seen a number of startups develop VR and simulation technology solutions for healthcare training and education. It is particularly useful for surgeons, a field in which trainees often struggle to get real world experience without putting lives at risk. It also enables more students to observe real-life surgeries than before. Whereas previously just a few were able to look over the shoulder of the surgeon during an operation, in 2016, Shafi Ahmed cancer surgeon performed an operation using a virtual reality camera at the Royal London hospital with anyone able to participate in the operation in real time using the Medical Realities website and the VR in OR app.

The UC Davis Center for Virtual Care, for example, has also introduced simulation technology for heart catheterization. Trainee cardiologists perform operations on a mannequin named ‘Samantha’ to give the student as close an experience to real life as possible. One startup making ripples is Illinois-based startup ImmersiveTouch, who have created software that allows surgical procedures to be recreated in a virtual world, allowing the surgeon to see, hear, feel, and touch the procedure. Bost startup Osso VR has just raised $2 million in seed funding to develop their ‘award winning VR surgical simulation platform with advanced hand tracking.’

Mental Health

Jessica L. Maples-Keller, PhD of the University of Georgia and lead author of one VR study explains, ‘Virtual reality is potentially a powerful tool for the psychiatric community. It allows providers to create computer-generated environments in a controlled setting, which can be used to create a sense of presence and immersion in the feared environment for individuals suffering from anxiety disorders.’

The use of VR to solve mental health issues has been around since the 90s. It has helped phobia patients to get over their worst fears through exposure therapy by recreating the environments so they can confront them head on. Similarly, for PTSD sufferers, some hospitals are already using VR to put veterans back into battlefield situations in Iraq and Afghanistan in order to help them understand and come to terms with their memories and move past them. They are also being helped through the combination of VR and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), which allows traumatic memories to be recalled and reframed through certain eye movements.

The results so far have been extremely positive. One study on the use of VR to treat persecutory delusions by the British Journal of Psychiatry found that eight of the 15 in the latter group no longer met the formal criteria as a result, and a number of startups stand ready to exploit its growth. Chicago startup Regroup Therapy, which was founded in 2011, for example, has already managed $8.4 million in funding that they are using to develop a platform enabling mental health professionals to virtually meet with patients at a variety of institutions. The startup is working towards eliminating mental healthcare shortages across the US by providing virtual staffing of psychiatrists and therapists drawn from our network of more than 2,000 providers.

Pain Relief

There is now solid scientific evidence that it is possible to treat pain using VR. Indeed, Dr Ted Jones, a clinical psychologist at Pain Consultants, says VR provides very good pain relief to about 95% of patients, although the effect usually wears off soon after the patient removes the headset, noting that ‘it works well and it’s easy – all you’ve got to do is put something on your head and play with penguins.’

The way it works is that when a patient is immersed in VR, the parts of the brain that are linked to pain – the somatosensory cortex and the insula – are less active. So, a patient could hide in a calm, secluded location, or, as Jones says, playing with penguins - anything provides them with a pleasure from sightseeing. This effectively helps to calm down and distract the patients from quite unpleasant burning sensation throughout the body, even making it possible to tolerate usually extremely painful medical procedures without the anesthesia. SnowWorld, for example, allows patients recovering in hospital burn wards to explore a world of snowmen and forget about their pain for a little bit. 

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